It was late and getting later on a Sunday night, and I had been on the verge of tears all day. I knew I had to say something. I had already waited much too long, and now it was the day before the deadline. So tense I was practically nauseous, I picked up the phone to call Allison, my writing partner. “I think we need to change topics,” I said, trying and failing to sound relaxed.
“I’m so glad to hear you say that,” Allison replied. “So do I.”
It had been about six months since Allison and I had been paired up at the first Think Write Publish workshop. I was the writer, she was the scholar—a history professor who had studied engineering. We were among the only people in the program interested in the physical sciences, drawn to the challenge of telling compelling stories about subjects that can seem arcane and inaccessible. We hit it off right away.
We also had no idea of the giant rabbit hole we were scurrying down. Allison had some experience writing long—as a tenure-track professor, she had a whole PhD dissertation under her belt. But although I had always been a good writer, I didn’t have much experience with journalism, let alone narrative feature writing. I had wanted to be a science writer since the beginning of college, when I interned in the communications office of a physics lab and loved it. I wasn’t in much of a hurry, though. At the time of the first TWP workshop, I had been out of college for four years and had only recently started my first journalism internship, at Wired magazine. The longest piece I had ever written was around 2,000 words.
So when Allison and I sat down to brainstorm ideas for the long creative nonfiction piece we would spend the next year and a half working on, we made one of the most common mistakes in narrative writing: we thought about topics, not stories. We figured that if the topic was interesting enough, the rest of the story—characters, stakes, a clear beginning, middle, and end—would fall into place. This isn’t true. But it’s also a nearly unavoidable delusion, one that many, many writers have fallen prey to at some point.
Back at the first workshop, our brainstorming wasn’t going anywhere. So eventually I floated my favorite topic at the time: the life and death of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a particle accelerator that was partially built and then abandoned in the plains of East Texas in the mid-1990s. We were coming up on the 20th anniversary of the federal government’s cancellation of the project, so it seemed like a good time for a retrospective to consider the ramifications of a policy decision that had rocked American particle physics. Plus CERN, the physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland, had just announced the discovery of the Higgs boson at its Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Because the Higgs was thought to give mass to the rest of the elementary particles, it was an absolutely vital piece of the model physicists use to describe the universe. But until 2012, no one had ever observed a Higgs. The SSC had been designed to churn them out by the billions, with energy left over for other mysteries that the LHC might not be powerful enough to tackle. As the discovery of the Higgs was triumphantly announced by every major news outlet, it seemed like all this history was getting left out of the story.
My interest wasn’t purely theoretical. I had visited the SSC site during a cross-country road trip a few years prior and become obsessed. The abandoned office buildings now inhabited by wasps, the flooded accelerator tunnel just a few feet below the ground, the ghost-like footprints of other intrepid, scientifically minded trespassers—the setting seemed perfect for a story of loss. I told Allison all about how the site seemed tragically representative of the ways big physical science projects had declined in the U.S. after the end of the Cold War, a monument to the moment when a country gave up on its dreams.
By that point I had been talking about the SSC for years. I was good at selling it. I even thought I might to write a book about why the project had failed and what it meant for the future of particle physics. Allison caught my enthusiasm and started her own research on the SSC. She remembered that pieces of the SSC had been on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in the Science in American Life exhibit, one of the most widely acclaimed and criticized exhibits of the 1990s. She wondered what the museum’s archives would reveal about the cancellation.
I should have stopped her right there. Because if I’m really honest with myself, I knew it was never going to work as the kind of piece we were supposed to be writing for TWP. There was some narrative momentum built into the saga of how the project was green-lit by the federal government and then, a few years later, defunded. But I had been poking around the history of the SSC for several years at that point, and I had yet to find a single character interesting enough to carry a story. And the more I thought about the death of the SSC, the lower the stakes seemed. Who cared what had happened to a specialty science project 20 years ago? Maybe it wasn’t that physics history was being forgotten. Maybe it was just that the field had moved on, and it was time for me to do the same.
Instead, I doubled down. For the next months, I forced myself to suffer through interview after fruitless interview, hour after hour of trying to write and coming up with nothing, weekend after weekend of feeling the guilt, dread, and shame pile up to insurmountable levels. At a certain point—which, not coincidentally, ended up being the night before our deadline—there was nothing left to do but confess my troubles and look for a new story to tell.
Allison and I felt terrible about changing our topic so late in the game. I was as nervous and tense as I’d ever been heading into our second TWP workshop. Changing our topic felt like failing. But as we settled on a new story—a chronicle of Allison’s time exploring and researching a curator-less collection at the Smithsonian—it was immediately clear we’d done the right thing. The new story had an obvious main character: Allison herself, who could talk first hand about the struggles to keep an orphaned collection alive and growing. There was drama, as she attempted to arrange a meeting with a senator to make the case for the engineering collection’s importance. And there were stakes. Our country’s technological present was going uncurated at our national history museum. If no one knew about the problem, it would never be fixed.
At our second workshop, the words poured out. After two days, we had written thousands of words and had a clear outline for the rest. Six weeks later, we filed a solid draft. Even though it wasn’t published for nearly a year, the piece continues to feel present and urgent. It’s inspired people with power to help the Smithsonian’s orphaned collections. We couldn’t have asked for a better response.
I know that when it comes to a narrative feature, the last thing you need is a sweeping topic full of grand ideas. You need to start with the characters, the narrative arc, and the stakes. Those aren’t blanks to be filled in later. Those are the minimum you need to get started. They are also precisely what Allison and I were missing when it came to the SSC, and what we had in abundance when it came to the Smithsonian.
If there’s one thing I learned from TWP, it’s that stories will tell you how they need to be written. Different kinds of pieces have different ingredients. If you don’t have the ingredients for a creative nonfiction feature, you won’t be able to write one, no matter how many agonizing hours you spend in front of your computer. But you might have the ingredients for another kind of piece. Just because something isn’t meant to written as a long narrative doesn’t mean it’s not worth writing. Sometimes an op-ed, a blog post, a slideshow, or a chart is the best way to tell a story.
In the end, Allison salvaged a small part of the SSC research and wrote a blog post on the American History Museum’s website on October 21, 2013, the 20th anniversary of the cancellation. She didn’t write about the abandoned tunnel in Texas, but rather about the grass roots organizations that opposed the SSC’s construction. It focused on what the museum collected from the failed project. She started the piece with the rhetorical question of “How do you write a history of something that didn’t happen?” The reality, we learned, is that you can’t—at least not as a creative nonfiction narrative.
Two and a half years after that first TWP workshop, I’m putting the lessons we learned the hard way into practice as the Latin America correspondent for Science magazine. As a reporter, I’ve started going on quests for good characters who have stories with built-in conflicts and narrative arcs. They are really hard to find. And, to be honest, I’m a little worried I’ll talk myself out of trying to tell their stories even when I do manage to find them, because I’m scared of getting sucked into another dead-end topic. At this point in my career, I’m trying to find the balance between trying to write about every topic I find interesting and giving up on potentially rich stories before I even get started, out of fear they won’t pan out.
I trust that eventually I’ll find that balance. I also trust that our SSC attempt won’t be the last time I fall in love with a story only to realize I have to give it up, or approach it in a different way. Not all stories can or need to be told in narrative form, and accepting that is the first step in identifying the stories that do. Experimenting with a topic and realizing it won’t work isn’t the end of the creative process. It’s just the beginning.
January 2013: Six on a Sunday morning and still middle-of-the-night dark in Seattle. I have pulled myself out of bed hours before sunrise and gone to shiver at my desk for the sake of an administrative task: I must make a list of my 2013 goals to share with Bruce Burgett, dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington-Bothell, where I am a third-year, tenure-track professor. I am particularly vexed by this assignment because I have been given only the weekend to prepare, and I am struggling with it because I am burned out.
My book, an ethnography of community-industry relations in a Louisiana refinery town called Refining Expertise, will be out soon, and—after years of early mornings spent scrambling to write a few pages before turning to class and committee work—there is nothing left for me to do. This leaves me at loose ends. Spending time on the book had become a comforting routine, and I miss it. But finishing the book has left me feeling spent, and although I’m still writing articles, nothing else has yet come to capture my attention, or affection.
The one thing I feel truly inspired to do, in the lonely dim of this Seattle winter, is write fiction. Fiction has long been an aspiration struggling to find a foothold in my everyday activities, and after years of trying to squeeze it in to exhausted evenings and weekends crammed with class prep, I have given over my precious early morning hours to writing a short story. I appease my guilt about neglecting “real” work by tackling a story that illustrates an important argument of my book: the people who live with oil refineries are ambivalent about both their industrial neighbors and their environmentalist champions. It will be the story of a refinery neighbor who can’t bear the pity of her well-meaning allies and snaps at a public event. It never happened, but having witnessed the intense and contradictory emotions that fuel community campaigns, I know that it could. And what if it did?
So far I’ve managed only a few flat character sketches and an unconvincing outline, but I’d still much rather be working on the story than conjuring up goals on demand. I know what my list of goals should say, of course, but the task of enumerating half-finished journal articles and grant application deadlines bores the words right out of me, and no list emerges.
Finally I decide that I’m just going to say it: my goal is to write fiction. It’s an interdisciplinary program. My tenure-making book is done. I might get away with it. But how am I going to say it?
One of the things that will take a chunk of my time in the coming year is the Think, Write, Publish program. I have been involved in CSPO’s NSF-sponsored project since 2010, when, as a Next Generation Policy Scholar, I spent six months struggling to write an article about my research while entirely missing the point of the program: to teach argument-oriented academics to tell stories. Once I finally got it, I was captivated by the possibilities: who could you reach with a narrative that you couldn’t with an argument? What could you say in a story that you couldn’t in a journal article? I wasn’t a total convert; I worried that my policy points would get lost in narrative, and when I tried to identify narrative-worth characters and scenes in my research, I found myself drawn to people whose backstory I could never know, and to answering not “what happened?” but “what if?” Still, I was hooked, and I agreed to be a mentor to the second class of fellows in the 2012-13 academic year.
I list these activities among the objectives that I will share with Bruce—continuing as a mentor for TWP and writing an essay about my role—as well as other aims that have emerged from the things I’m learning and connections I’m making in the program. As I do, I realize that all of my work with narrative, including my short story, serves one overarching goal: to share what I know with a broader audience than my academic work will ever reach. I write “investigate story-telling as a form of public scholarship” as a header for my objectives and send off the document, nervous about how it will be received, but pleased with what I’m setting out to do.
The next morning, I sit down with Bruce in his office, where floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are lined with cultural theory and literary criticism. I lead with my storytelling aims. He examines my list of objectives as I chatter on about narrative as a promising vehicle for public scholarship. When I am through, he has only two words for me.
“Makes sense,” he says. Writing fiction officially becomes part of my scholarly work.
July 2013: The sun now wakes me at an hour that no reasonable person could consider “morning,” and I pop out of bed to write—not fiction, which has fallen by the wayside as I have gotten excited about my new research project, but a proposal to the National Science Foundation for five years of funding under their Early Career Development Grant program. If I get the CAREER Award, perhaps the most prestigious grant available to an individual investigator in my field, I will have the resources to work with air-monitoring activists to better mobilize the large quantities of data they now have access to—something that I fantasize about in my TWP essay with Rachel Zurer, “Drowning in Data.”
As I sit in my sun-yellow office, writing manically throughout the long Seattle days, I struggle with managing the flow of information in the grant proposal. I have been taught to make the research question and the rationale for it unmistakable from the first paragraph, but my question comes from noticing changes in activist discourse over more than a decade. I write and re-write that all-important first paragraph to give the reader enough background to understand my question while at the same time not overwhelming them with detail before they get to the crux of what I hope to accomplish. Finally I achieve a draft that I think strikes a reasonable balance between background and brevity in the first paragraph. I send it off to Ben Cohen, a colleague who has been successful getting grants from the NSF in the past.
When we speak a few days later, Ben has lots of ideas about how I can improve my proposal. But he doesn’t comment on how I’ve managed the first paragraph; instead, he remarks on a story I started a couple pages in. That, he said, was where the proposal really got compelling. I should start with that.
His suggestion goes against everything I know about writing grant proposals, but Ben points out that, in addressing the NSF’s question about the “broader impacts” of my work, I said that I would write creative nonfiction articles as well as academic ones, citing the experience I’ve gained through TWP. Starting with my narrative, he argues, will further my case by demonstrating the story-telling abilities I’ve been cultivating.
I take his advice. The project description I submit to the NSF begins with the story of a 1994 accident at a California oil refinery and how air monitoring practices developed in its wake. I don’t expect my proposal to be successful—CAREER awards are notoriously hard to get—but I am pleased to have set myself an agenda for the next several years that includes everything I’ve always wanted to do … except write fiction.
November 2013: I sit in the office another dean, Donna Murasko, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University. Books are not a presence here; the office is sparse and executive. Dean Murasko explains to me that she has the final say on who is hired for the assistant professor position I am interviewing for, then asks me about my research. I describe the agenda laid out in my grant proposal. On my aspirations to write fiction, I remain silent. This is not a dean to whom they would make sense. And I really want this job—even though I might have to give up my storytelling ambitions. It is more research-focused than my current position, and near family and friends in an area that I consider home.
When I am offered the job, I know immediately I will accept. But I also intend to negotiate the offer. I write to the NSF to ask about the status of my grant proposal and am thrilled to be informed that they plan to fund my project. The award not only puts me in a stronger position to negotiate; it also creates a mandate for the publicly engaged research and creative nonfiction writing integral to the proposal. It is only fiction, it seems, that I will need to cut out of 2014’s professional goals.
November 2014: Six on a Sunday morning, and while it is not yet light, I can see the sky beginning to pink up from where I sit in the bedroom of my Center City apartment, cross-legged on my bed. Laptop in my lap, I am up early to keep a promise to myself: I will devote two evenings a week and 3 hours every Saturday and Sunday to writing fiction. Moving to Philadelphia has enabled my new resolve: this is where I have wanted to make my life, and now that I am able to do so, I must make the life that I want. As I contemplated what that meant for me, one stubborn desire kept reasserting myself: I want to be a novelist.
I have promised myself time to write before. But this time it is different: I am letting my writing commitment drive my schedule, refusing social engagements on writing nights, and, on Sundays, getting up before dawn to sneak in my three hours before I make the trek to a Delaware County suburb to share Sunday dinner with my oldest friend and her family.
As natural light begins to filter into the room, I immerse myself in the refinery town that I have created for my story, a town that is deeply familiar and about which I still have many questions. I pose those questions to myself; rewrite the places where my answers don’t match what my characters are doing. I puzzle over how to show what I know about this place, these people, through descriptions, dialogue, action. I am learning rapidly as I write, and I notice that I am drawing on things that I have learned from TWP: what makes a good scene, for example, how to choose details that enrich a story while keeping it moving—things that Lee Gutkind talks about in his workshops. I am also enjoying myself. My characters and their predicaments entertain me; when I spend time with them, I slough off the stresses of academia and feel more human.
I will need to catch my train soon, so I reread what I’ve written and see that somewhere in the middle I’ve started explaining the issues that feed the story. I hear Lee’s voice in my head: what is happening in this scene? I delete those lines and try again to communicate my ideas through action instead. The story improves.
Creating fiction writers was surely not an aim of TWP. To its funders, the program will do better to brag about my CAREER award, my work to bring narrative to undergraduate environmental studies classes, my plans to take a narrative approach to my next book and have it published by a mainstream press (something I now know how to do). But for me, this has been TWP’s real accomplishment: giving me the tools, the inspiration, and the mandate to write fiction that puts a human face on energy policy issues.
Words and Atoms
If you had asked me to describe myself a couple of years ago, I would have replied with a sentence of five words:
I am a word person.
I have recited that sentence countless times. I have nodded in agreement when people used it to describe me. What moved me most, I would have told you, were words – their beauty, their authority. I was made of words, I was convinced, constructed out of story. Words and stories: that was my whole story. This idea felt right. It felt like fact.
We define ourselves, for better or for worse, by the stories we tell. I want to offer a short story that feels like the latter: At the opening dinner of the first To Think To Write To Publish session in Bethesda, Maryland, I introduced myself with another sentence of five words:
“I am obsessed with narrative.”
Six days later, I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. That moment at the banquet began a period of my life that ended with me realizing what I’d long seen as a comfort was actually a curse. I wound up questioning the way I saw the world and my place in it. Consider my conversion, if you would, a story in three acts.
At the first session of workshops I attended in Bethesda, I met and collaborated with people whose passions and career trajectories were unlike mine. They were doctors and historians and scientists. They thought about science and policy the way I thought about narrative structure and scene and theme. I left those six days of sessions admiring them, living in a half-canted state of wonderment. They had decided to step outside their areas of expertise and learn something new and difficult – all to bring their knowledge to wider audiences.
On the last day of the Bethesda session someone joked with me about my introduction – that moment at the opening dinner where I described myself as obsessed with narrative. I laughed, but inside I cringed. After nearly a week in these new surroundings, my go-to story felt narrow. The sensation faded – I let it fade, I should say, the way we tend to dispatch with any storyline that doesn’t align with one we already know. But I never fully forgot.
A year and a half later, I was walking out of a hotel room in Tempe, headed to the first day of meetings during the second round of TWP. My phone rang. It was my boss, Patsy Sims, director of the MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. I can’t talk, I said. That’s OK, she said, I just had a quick question.
She told me that she was going on leave to write a book. Would I be interested in becoming the interim director while she was gone?
I looked at my watch. I needed to meet a group of people in the lobby of my hotel in four minutes. I said yes. I hung up the phone. I walked through town with my fellow mentors to a meeting on campus and made small talk. And as we discussed our goals for the week a large part of my brain suddenly went full-on klaxon, asking exactly what in the name of all that’s holy I had just done.
This wasn’t part of my story! I wasn’t an administrator! I had worked on the faculty in Goucher’s program for fourteen years. I was by profession and most likely by cellular makeup a writer. A word person.
A couple of days later I sat eating a boxed lunch in a ballroom filled with mentors and writing fellows as Lee Gutkind performed an operation on a story that he calls a yellow test – highlighting in yellow the sections that contain characters and action that elevate it past flat exposition into something that felt more like life. Into something that somebody would want to read.
I was thrilled to be here, surrounded by scenes and words and smart people. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d agreed to do; my brain still felt furred with nervousness. I pushed aside my half-finished sandwich and looked around. To my left one of the fellows took notes on his laptop. By training he was a doctor. He hoped to master narrative to call attention to flaws in the practice of medicine. He looked over and smiled. And the awkward feeling I’d felt in Maryland a year and a half earlier about my narrow mindset returned fully formed – to be precise, the feeling snapped into the form of a question:
If so many others could willingly venture someplace new to do good work, to question what they thought they knew, what was stopping me?
There’s a great scene in a silly film that I keep thinking about as I write. It’s a Cary Grant movie from 1951 called People Will Talk. Grant plays Noah Praetorius, a doctor who teaches at a medical school and runs a clinic. Being Cary Grant, he also conducts an orchestra that consists of students and faculty at the medical school. Walter Slezak is his friend, Lionel Barker, an atomic physicist who plays in the orchestra.
Praetorius, a gynecologist, practices some unorthodox methods of treatment; one of these is marrying a patient played by Jeanne Crain, who finds herself pregnant to a dead boyfriend and in a state of distress shoots herself. Grant operates on her, then marries her. The movie makes no sense, which is one of the best things about it. (It helps that it’s – yes – well written.)
The absolute best thing about People Will Talk is a two-minute, thirteen-second scene in which Grant and Slezak play with model trains. They literally get their signals crossed; the trains crash. Grant storms into the room where the models lie on their sides and confronts Barker about the reason for the collision:
– And whose fault is it, my fine atomic friend? You can’t go around smashing everything you see. You know, everything isn’t made of atoms.
And Barker replies:
– Yes, it is.
That exchange always struck me as hilarious: Slezak’s dishevelment and polished certainty in the face of Grant’s elegant fit. Grant was entirely certain he was right – though you understood he was entirely wrong. He wasn’t thinking things through. You’d think it would be obvious, but it took me a long time to understand why I remembered the moment at all.
Hindsight of course makes it simple: because I used to think, or underthink, the same way. I assumed I lacked the skills to run a writing program or venture in any meaningful way outside areas I knew well. I considered that as fact, even though I had no idea whether that was true or whether that was just a story I chose to tell myself. Even though as a journalist I had made a living question every piece of information I came across.
In all of TWP’s workshops and meetings and impromptu strategy sessions at dinner, I learned a great deal from the other mentors and the writing fellows. But what meant the most is the thing the program urged me to unlearn – that automatic retreat into all I considered fixed and absolute. The unquestioned theme. The untested hypothesis. Working with people who decided to become writers despite years of training in other fields made me wonder what would happen if I tested my old assumptions – maybe smashed together a few things I never saw as possible.
The writer Marilynne Robinson once wrote that she likes to seek analogies in science because of the discipline’s bent toward hypothesis. “All thought always inclines toward error,” she added. “The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error. … We are inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch.”
Apart from the immediate successes of TWP – the grants awarded, the articles and books published and recognition gained – to me the program’s most lasting value could be its call to examine our loyalties, question what we’re made of, if only in our minds, and keep remembering that reality is far more interesting than anything we believe we already know.
A Narrative Arc Towards Justice
Everyone in the room was sipping coffee, ignoring the speaker’s opening statement.
“We need narratives of a future we’d like to live in.”
Dessert plates clinked in the room full of writers and science policy scholars. They seemed to be waiting for Gary Dirks to continue, but his words echoed in my head, both then and since. It was May 2013, Tempe Arizona; the final gathering I would be attending after three years of involvement in To Think, To Write, To Publish (TWP)—an effort to produce impactful stories by pairing creative writers with science policy scholars. Why create these interdisciplinary partnerships? Dirks’s statement provided both an apt response and a summary of my experience.
Dirks—a tall, white-haired former president of BP Asia Pacific and BP China —stood still at the podium in the plain, well-appointed ballroom at the Mission Palms. He exuded the confidence I expected from a multinational corporate officer, but sported rather worried-looking eyes. In recent years, he had left BP to direct the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Continuing with his talk, Dirks went on to show the importance of stories in the battle for ideas. He first noted the vast power disparity when it comes to climate and energy policy.
“We have a general public that continues to be largely indifferent, and special interests that are not,” Dirks remarked, and came to a full stop, letting us do the math. The equation, of course, adds up to a perpetual and wholly unsustainable status quo.
I shuddered inside. This was not a new revelation, but like Dirks’s earlier statement, it stirred me; a warm anxiety climbed in my chest. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Whether or not he was right, King’s statement is descriptive of that which humans strive for in spite of the evidence. During my early attempts at being a writer, I’ve come to believe, like Dirks, that the most valuable stories also bend in the direction of justice—of wrongs being made right. In one sense, this is what stories are and what stories do; it’s as old as Aristotle’s Poetics—the conventions of conflict and resolution. But writers are often better at dealing with the former than the latter.
As one of the writers in the room, I was shaken with resolve to find and tell stories that point to solutions—even if these solutions are only potential or partial. But do these stories have real impact? As I’d learned, attempting to be this sort of writer comes with built-in disillusionment.
It was 2009, late summer. Obama remained fresh-faced, and I was fresh out of an MFA writing program. The best writing-related position I found was at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a large U.S. Department of Energy science facility. Rolling Stone had just profiled Steven Chu, the new administration’s Energy Secretary. In a two-page photo spread with the words The Secretary of Saving the Planet, he looked ready to put on a cape.
I fancied myself joining Chu, Obama, and their super friends, especially because it looked like they were trying to make a move on climate change. The House had already passed a “cap-and-trade” bill—a market-based approach to carbon emissions. So I moved south a couple hours to the sagebrush-covered scabland that had once been home to portions of the Manhattan Project. Driving behind my wife, both vehicles packed with our possessions, I remember thinking: This could be huge.
Days later, I began charging my time to the American taxpayers. The first time “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” popped onto my virtual timecard for some writing I did on a building energy efficiency project, it stopped me. I had become a green job.
During my second month, after being slapped back down to earth with piles of technical editing, my manager tapped me to help one of the lab’s high-ranking scientists draft a splashy op-ed piece addressing the scientific and technological implications of new climate policy. After shockingly little input from the scientist, the first draft was up to me.
I became a one-person think tank, absorbing everything I could on the topic. With a bipartisan coalition forming in the Senate, the scientist wanted a timely essay to position our lab’s scientists as thought leaders. As I saw it, this would embody a quote from the President’s inaugural address: a way to “restore science to its rightful place.”
After much hand wringing, I turned in a draft I felt was solid—a strong shell for the bigwigs to massage and the media relations people to place. I emailed it to the scientist at 3am, and walked into his office later that morning to find him just printing it off. He told me to stay, and I stood awkwardly at his desk, watching his inscrutable bearded face as he read it. His eyebrows rose.
“How long have you been here at the Lab?” he asked after finishing.
“A couple months.”
“This is excellent stuff.”
I started breathing again.
He told me he would finish the piece and work to get it placed in a highly visible outlet. I floated across campus back to my large gray building and my small gray cubicle, exhausted and savoring what I felt was the pinnacle of my early writing career.
I didn’t hear from him about it again. A mammoth proposal effort seemed to swallow up his entire department. The op-ed reached, and passed, its expiration date, probably sitting under a pile of binders on the scientist’s desk. The climate bill languished in the Senate, and finally died. I thought of the staffers who did exponentially more work on the legislation than I had on my precious op-ed. We long for our writing to matter, and often it just doesn’t. As hope for climate legislation was breathing its last, in March 2010, I learned about TWP.
On a flight back from visiting a clinic in rural Kenya, I prepared my application. My own professional trajectory had pretty much followed the progression ASU had chosen for the name of the project. My undergrad was in philosophy, so my early twenties were about thinking. My graduate work was about narrative writing, and the years since had resulted in some quasi-successful attempts at publishing. Through my role at PNNL and my spare-time efforts in the nonprofit sector (including that trip to Kenya), my overarching career goal was to be a communicator of content that matters. TWP was creating new space for just that purpose.
Arriving in Tempe in May 2010, I learned that the TWP crew was a subset of a much larger gathering of thinkers, The Rightful Place of Science, named for the President’s quote. I soon met my scholar-partner, Sonja Schmid, a tall Austrian woman with thick dark hair and fashionable glasses. After earning her PhD at Cornell in science and technology studies, she was an assistant professor at Virginia Tech. We sat together in the hotel’s courtyard, shifting in our bar stools to avoid the direct Arizona sunlight, freaking out about the pitch we were expected to deliver to a panel of world-class editors and agents two hours later. Her expertise was in nuclear reactors and the humans who operate them, especially energy reactors in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. She spoke passionately—but very generally—about her dissertation research in Russia. I asked her to describe the most striking moment from her time there. Like many lay-level readers, I needed a scene to help me understand. She squinted against the sun, quiet, and then gave me one.
Schmid spent a year in Moscow, mostly penned inside musty archival reading rooms. But with a single tape recorder and without a quiet office at her disposal, she also set out to preserve a primary resource that was, and is, dying out. Former dons of the Soviet-era nuclear power program spoke with her on trains and buses, in homes and coffee shops, and over sometimes-obligatory shots of vodka. One of these interviews yielded an image that stuck with her..
Like her other interviewees, “Yuri” had been eager to speak to Schmid, but visibly relieved when she offered not to use his real name. For an elderly Russian nuclear engineer whose Cold War career had comprised stints in both military and civilian reactors, secrecy fell somewhere between a reflex and a superstition.
After two terse hours with her microphone on a desk between them, they shared a cigarette break. They stood in a stairwell, holding cigarettes over the public ashtray, a large metal trash bin painted, rather sternly, the same gray as the walls. Then, in two sentences separated by a narrow downward stream of smoke, Yuri abandoned his technical talking points.
“The reactors are like children; each one is different,” he said, as if suddenly remembering something he had forgotten, the central point. “You come to know their peculiarities by spending time with them; you begin to feel how each reactor breathes.”
This single moment—a man describing his machines—focused our story on a very present issue: the personalities and complexities that surround small modular nuclear reactors, a rising new technology. In academic writing, there had never been an appropriate venue for her to include this scene, but our essay was an opportunity to let it illuminate the murky socio-technical issues shaping our energy systems.
Developing the piece with Sonja and mentoring the next class of writer/scholar partnerships, an overarching truth became clear: this is really hard. Throwing together interdisciplinary strangers and asking them to produce an effective scene-driven essay on a complex topic is a recipe for conflict. But something else became clear: the difficulty is worth it. The writing that comes easiest to us has a nasty habit of being largely ineffectual. In our sleep, writers can dash off blurbs and blogs, and academics can piece together another paper for an esoteric audience. But to wake up and write scenic nonfiction, full of ideas, information, characters, and action is to do something difficult. But it comes with a chance to make an impact.
In the weeks and months after our story “The Little Reactor That Could?” appeared in Issues in Science and Technology, Sonja and I received evidence of impact. Back in my gray cubicle, I remember checking my personal email at lunch to find that we had touched a nerve. One reader, a 30-year-veteran nuclear energy researcher, thanked us for our “delightfully honest” and “spot-on” narrative. He mentioned that a colleague had personally given him a copy of the magazine, and that he would be forwarding it to many colleagues around the country “who could use a dose of humility.” The narrative elements of the story conveyed a healthy skepticism about the salesmanship running rampant around such technologies, and these scenes were vivid enough to get pinged around to inboxes across the research community. As for policymakers, William Ostendorff, the acting head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, contributed a thoughtful response to our article in the magazine’s following issue. Our narrative experiment was something new, but it had made it onto the right radars. In the years since, I have presented about this piece at the Policy Studies Organization’s Dupont Summit and received several requests to submit related work to other conferences and publications. Each time this happens, I forward the request to Sonja, who continues to benefit from the doors our provocative little essay has opened.
Continuing as a mentor, I have only been more convinced of both assertions: that these sorts of partnerships are very difficult and well worth the trouble. Most notably, a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction included a timely and insightful piece about whole genome sequencing from one of the partnerships I oversaw: “A Doctor’s Dilemma” by Joon Ho Yu and Maria Delaney. As a mentor, I recognized my own previous experience as I watched the work develop: frustration giving way to hope. Perhaps a compromise can be made between complex information and vivid scenes, and perhaps this blend is the alchemy behind stories that matter.
The dessert plates had been cleared in that hotel ballroom, the coffee finished. Dirks circled back to his assertion as he neared that end of his talk, now that the room was paying full attention.
“We need narratives of a future we’d like to live in.”
In my notebook from that weekend, the line is repeated and underlined. TWP brought me through a process of learning and practicing and encouraging the discipline of narrative nonfiction about complex, high-stakes topics. I’m hungry for more—to unearth and shed light on the people and ideas tasked with creating a sustainable future. My delusions have subsided—it is difficult for one piece of writing to rise above the noise. But over my career, I will make choices about the projects to pursue, the people to profile, the ideas to capture in scene. In every case, I want these choices to count.
I now serve as director of a program that mentors adolescents and empowers them to seek justice. The writing side of my life continues to include publishing, most recently in fiction, but the stakes have been raised. When I sit at my computer to write, Dirks’s reminder is in my head. Given the complex web of problems our world faces, does this narrative point toward justice? My hope is that the arc of my own career will bend increasingly in that direction.
Is Creative Nonfiction Worth The Risk?
When was the last time you ever heard of someone getting killed by history? Generally speaking, my chosen profession as a historian at the University of South Carolina is relatively safe. I’m not dodging bullets or scaling skyscrapers. Compared to the mortality statistics of fishermen, firefighters, pilots, and steelworkers, you may think that my greatest battle wounds involve paper cuts and embarrassing stapler injuries in the archives. But even though I am not in an active combat zone, in my own way I am a quiet revolutionary.
You see, I do not yet have tenure, and with all of my writing I wage a small fight for the importance of public scholarship. As much as I appreciate historical theory, revel in scholarly debates, and look forward to the latest articles in my professional journals, my true love is developing museum exhibits. I like writing for audiences who have serendipitously stumbled upon my work and then happily learn something unexpected about history. I enjoy working at the intersection of engineering and history and showing new perspectives on both fields. I believe in reaching broad audiences and am an advocate for the humanities.
This might seem obvious, but in the Byzantine world of academia, it is tantamount to mutiny. Academic historians expect assistant professors at Research I universities like mine to write single-authored monographs that are published by university presses. They don’t fancy collaboration and are truly skeptical of “creative” nonfiction, with its focus on scenes and narrative momentum rather than citations and theory.
So when I applied to be a Think Write Publish research fellow, I knew I was taking a risk. I would be paired up with a writer to work on the kind of article I love reading, but have been warned against writing for the sake of my academic career. And to be honest, I came away from our first TWP workshop thinking the entire genre dubious.
Luckily, I had a great collaborator, Lizzie Wade, who is now the Latin American correspondent for Science magazine. Lizzie and I decided to write a narrative nonfiction piece about my six months working at the National Museum of American History, one of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums. I had a fellowship to explore and research the engineering collection, which had lacked a dedicated curator for over 10 years. Lizzie and I hoped our story could help the public understand the challenges museums face in caring for their collections.
Orphaned collections, sadly, are common, even at the Smithsonian. Most museum professionals are well aware of this problem. Commiserating tweets from Australia and Britain, as well as the National Park Service and the Library of Congress, popped up soon after publication of our piece in June. But most visitors to museums have no idea about the state of collections in storage. Was it worth the risk to write about it?
Because I don’t have tenure, every choice I make to publish (or not) is a calculated risk. I do not yet have the blanket immunity of academic freedom. Every sentence I construct is subject to judgment by my colleagues. For the first six years of my job at the University of South Carolina, everything I write is collected for my tenure file. At the end of my probationary period, the file is reviewed by external evaluators and voted on by tenured faculty in my department. They decide my academic fate. If there isn’t enough of the “right” type of scholarship (usually academic articles in peer reviewed journals or single authored books published by university presses), I could be denied tenure. And being denied tenure means my academic career would be over.
Traditional tenure committees are struggling with new opportunities for digital publishing and public engagement. “Collective Forgetting,” written in its journalistic mode, is suspicious simply because it does not adhere to normal academic, footnoted style. Even as I decided to write the article, I worried it would hurt my chances of succeeding in the career I love.
Furthermore, writing about the Smithsonian – an institution I value and respect – felt risky. I didn’t relish the idea of being a whistleblower. I didn’t want to be viewed as a critic taking easy potshots at beloved collections. I am a booster for the museum and want it to flourish, but as an insider I know it faces real challenges. How do you call attention to problems without making colleagues you respect feel you are blaming them?
I could have played it safe. I could have submitted an article on the orphaned engineering artifacts to the Journal of the History of Collections, which is published twice a year by Oxford University Press. There it would enter the conversation among museum professionals about such things as the ethical policies of deaccessioning collections at national museums. No one at the Smithsonian would take offense; the peer-reviewed article would clearly count for tenure.
But what would be the impact? Impact is a curious quality for judging writing. From a tenure perspective, academics care about “impact factor” – a measurement of the number of citations your work receives. It is used as a proxy for placing a value of relative importance of an article. All proxies are problematic, and trying to assess the value of historical research by counting how many people cite a specialized journal does not always capture the various ways your work has meaning.
In contrast, by collaborating with Lizzie and working with the Think Write Publish team, the essay’s worldwide print circulation neared 20,000 copies. It received well over 2,700 unique online views from visitors across the world, including the United States, England, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India, Denmark, Cambodia, Kenya, Columbia, Israel, South Africa, and 61 other nations. Thanks to Lizzie’s connections, Madeline Brand interviewed me on KCRW, Southern California’s flagship NPR station, this past summer. I continue to receive notes from people at museums all over the world, telling me how their institutions’ own curatorial crises are threatening the future of their collections. For me, this is beginning to look like real impact.
How will this all work out? I am not sure yet. I am lucky that my history department’s tenure guidelines instruct the committee to consider and value a professor’s public engagement in addition to her academic scholarship. Still, I am the first to actually put this policy to the test. When my department’s initial committee reviewed my file this fall, they saw “Collective Forgetting” alongside my writing for museum exhibits, online collections databases, and traditional peer-reviewed academic articles. I know the vote was contentious, but my department ultimately decided to recommend me for tenure. I also have a yes vote from the Dean’s Office. My file is now slowly churning through the University Committee on Tenure and Promotion, then it goes on to the Provost’s Office, the President’s Office, and the Board of Trustees. I will hear a final decision in late May or early June.
Similarly, my future relationship with the Smithsonian is yet to be determined. My friends and supporters remain, but they have also warned me to lay low for a while. I’m not exactly taking my victory lap around the NMAH, where much of “Collective Forgetting” takes place. Will I be branded a troublemaker and have limited research access to the collections? If a curatorial job materializes, will my application be quietly deemed unacceptable?
Those are risks I knowingly decided to take. As much as I want to receive tenure and preserve my professional relationship with the Smithsonian, I won’t sacrifice my firm commitment to the value of public engagement. I want my research to reach as broad a population as possible. I am a public historian, and I chose to be part of the Think Write Publish project because I believe in the power of compelling storytelling.
Five months after “Collective Forgetting” went live, I received an email from Art Johnson. Art is Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering at the University of Maryland, College Park and a fellow of numerous acronym-laced engineering organizations (ASABE, ASEE, AIMBE, AIHA, BMES, IBE, IEEE). He had read the article in Issues in Science and Technology Policy and was moved to action. He sent copies to people in the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineering suggesting they endow a position of agricultural technology. Response was tentatively positive, but they need to know how much it will actually cost.
This was exactly the kind of reaction I was hoping to inspire with “Collective Forgetting.” This was the power of passionate narrative. Not only did we reach people who were just looking for a good story, we connected with people who were in a position to make a real difference. I forwarded Art’s email to everyone at the NMAH—the Director of Development, the Director of the Museum, even then-Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough.
I don’t know the particulars of the NMAH’s fundraising strategies. I can’t negotiate gift agreements. I can’t accept donations on the Smithsonian’s behalf. All of that is up to them. The only thing I can do is write thoroughly researched articles, cross my fingers, take the risk, and hope it all works out.
A week later, I got an email from Clough. He was at a meeting of top corporate executives at the National Academy of Engineering and told them about the need for an endowed curatorial position at NMAH for engineering and technology. Even though he was officially resigning from the Smithsonian at the end of the 2014, he offered to help NMAH explore possible interest in this. A personal email from the Secretary of the Smithsonian endorsing the call to action in my article. In my mind, this is impact.
This email is not a part of my tenure file. It will not be considered by the university officials who are currently debating my future in the academy. It might not even salvage my relationships with Smithsonian employees whom I know were hurt or offended by the piece. But to my mind, it was worth the risk.
Say Yes to Weird Things
“The client is having issues with the word ‘revolutionary,’” said one of our account managers while wincing and reading the email from her phone. “They think it might make people remember 9/11.”
The client was a graduate-level business program. Not the best program in the world, of course, but they had their share to brag about. They could claim the third best such and such and the most improved this and that. The real problem wasn’t the actual program, though. It was the client’s nearly pathological disdain for self-promotion.
That’s why it was our job—the copywriters and graphic designers and marketing strategists—to come up with a way to polish this horse nugget, a troublesome enough task without the client constantly second-guessing the direction and speed and pressure with which we polished.
I remember leaving the conference room and going back to my desk dejected. It wasn’t because I lived and died for advertising. Nor did I particularly care about the client’s success. It was just, well, out of the advertising agency’s whole portfolio, this campaign had the most potential for intellectual exercise. I felt like I could make something out of it—you know, actually create and persuade and inspire.
Oh, and maybe it was that this was the fifth time the client had worried their newfound slogan—literally the only interesting thing about the program—might remind people of the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Still, the cowardice and indecision and sheer insipidness stung like it was the first time.
But it was far from the first time. I looked at the stacks of research and creative briefs towering over my desk, each one pregnant with future disappointment. My inbox dinged about four new briefs waiting to be printed, more of the same. Behind one of the piles, I glanced at the wild boar skull I’d brought in to remind me that there was more to life than online banner ads and hopeless clients.
“Why can’t someone just pay me to read and write about cool animals?” I remember thinking. That’s what I liked to do, and all those heady articles about happiness and fulfillment said you were supposed to do what you liked. But that wasn’t real life, right? Most people hated their jobs. They found a way to deal with it. Why couldn’t I?
I considered stabbing myself in the eye with one of the boar’s tusks.
It was right around this time in my life when I flew to Arizona to participate in To Think, To Write, To Publish. I had applied to the program a few months before while I was finishing up my Creative Nonfiction MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. Grad students have all the time in the world to fill out applications for crazy things, and so I completed the forms and sent them off. When I was selected to participate, I have to admit I didn’t even really know what would be expected of me—I only knew I’d looked up to Lee Gutkind when he taught at Pitt and I was interested in science writing and, well, I’d figure out whatever that “policy and outcomes” stuff was when I got there.
But then I’d landed the advertising job and my life had shrunk down to the size of 9 to 5. Grad school was over, all my student loans came raging out of deferment, and I’d accumulated all sorts of other bills and responsibilities that creep in once you give yourself over to gainful employment. Did I really have time to fly to Arizona for this CSPO thing?
The answer, of course, was sure. It has always been my mantra to say ‘yes’ to weird things. That’s what led me to spend a season working for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trapping and shooting invasive wild boars (hence the skull on my desk). It’s also how I came to be the editor and lead writer for a small fashion magazine, despite having no interest or aptitude in fashion. And later, it’s what spurred me toward making an actual living wage for my writing, albeit in the form of billboards, pamphlets, and social media campaigns.
Now I had the chance to fly to Arizona on someone else’s dime and learn how to write narrative from one of the best. There would even be the chance to rub elbows with real-life editors.
So I convinced the ad agency to give me time off I didn’t really have and packed my bags.
So much happened for me since I touched down in Tempe five years ago, so let me narrow it to just two important moments that changed the course of human events. OK, maybe just the course of Jason Bittel events.
One moment was during the conference hosted by the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes that took place after the initial Think, Write, Publish workshop. The conference was called “The Rightful Place of Science?”—a reference to President Obama’s inaugural address when he promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in society.
I’ll be honest: more than half of what was said in those panels and roundtables soared over my head, but one thing seemed to permeate each conversation—the need for better science communication from scientists and for the general public.
That’s when I got the idea to start a blog. I had no formal training in science, of course, but what I learned from sitting with all those science and policy professionals was that many experts were yearning to tell their stories, but had neither the time nor the motivation (and in some cases, the talent) to do so. I took that as an invitation.
After the conference, I paid a few skilled friends to design a brand and website, a platform for what I’d later call “serving science to picky eaters.” It’s true, I still had no earthly business teaching anyone about anatomy or biology, but I learned that if I called and emailed enough people who did, or Googled all their work, I could translate that information into something my peers might actually read. Heck, I thought, if I throw in a few Wayne’s World and Kardashian references, they might even enjoy reading about science.
So that’s what I did. By day, I wrote about healthcare facilities and graduate school business programs. By night: poison ivy, nudibranchs, and opossum penises.
The other critical moment of that first Think, Write, Publish conference was the panel where I met Laura Helmuth, then an editor at Smithsonian. I made note of her insistence that there was room for wonder and humor in science writing. Also, she said she liked to work with new writers.
I didn’t do anything with that information for close to two years, partly because of life—getting married, finding a house—and partly because of self-doubt. In the meantime, I wrote my little blog and honed my voice. And things might have gone on that way if it wasn’t for Think, Write, Publish.
The program had asked me back, this time to serve as a mentor to a fresh crop of science communicators. I didn’t feel like I had much to offer as a mentor, just this silly blog where I wrote about things like the false origins of lemming suicide, but again I said yes to another weird thing.
As I prepared to travel to Bethesda, Maryland, for the first installment of the new class, I saw that Laura would again be part of a panel full of editors and publishers. I also noticed that she’d since left Smithsonian for the online magazine Slate.
Hell yes, I thought. I’d been reading Slate for years, and while it would have been amazing to get my work published anywhere at that point, Slate was probably a lot more likely to accept me for my pop culture trappings and cuss words than most other magazines.
I immediately set to work drafting a pitch about porcupine sex, as is my wont. (I’d just discovered in an old book that porcupines practice an intricate and bizarre mating ritual that involves urine spraying and a whole lot of screaming, and I decided I needed to tell the world.) I told Laura I’d met her at the first conference, that if she remembered me at all, it was probably because I couldn’t stop talking about wild boars and well, please, pretty please, would you consider this completely unsolicited pitch about porcupine coitus?
Here’s the part of the narrative where you’d normally say, “And the rest was history!” But that implies that everything after fell into place with no need for sleepless nights and sacrifices and crippling fits of self-doubt and fear of failure. To be sure, there was plenty of all that.
But what I can say is that TWP was an enormous catalyst in my life. After that first article in Slate and a few more, I landed a regular gig writing for the website’s tech blog, Future Tense—a partnership between Slate and the New America Foundation. A few months after that, I had the good fortune to audition for a position at onEarth Magazine as their news correspondent. The three-day tryout coincided with the second leg of my TWP mentorship, further proof that Arizona is the land of portentous moments.
I got the job and quit copywriting for good. I’ve now been a full-time freelance science writer for nearly two years. I’ve had the fortune to write for National Geographic, The Week, Earth Touch News, Fast Company, The Dodo, and Baku Magazine. My work has also appeared in The Huffington Post, Salon, and The Tampa Bay Times.
But far more important than where I’ve published is what I’ve published. Laura and several other excellent editors at Slate encouraged me to write about panda poop, bat fellatio, hamster cannibalism, whale euthanasia, and canine sexually transmitted diseases. Elsewhere I’ve reported on predatory lightning bugs, antler deformities, melting starfish, butterfly bombs, weaponized rabbits, and the maternal instincts of earwigs.
If I didn’t now have a wild-eyed toddler ripping through my home office—another happy life development, though one I can’t attribute to my involvement in TWP—I could write about bugs and bones and buzzards all day, every day. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this. If I’m not living THE dream, I’m at least living MY dream.
The moral of the story, my story at least, is that good things happen when you say yes to weird things. (And not just because the things I write about are weird.) Every move—be it boars, fashion, advertising, or science policy—has put me a step closer to where I wanted to be. None of these choices were perfect. All required long hours, hard work, and a lot of learning. All made me question my initial decision to say yes. But all of that is just part of the journey.
I’m grateful for the opportunity TWP gave me to learn about writing and scientific thinking from Lee Gutkind and Dave Guston firsthand—these guys are legends in their fields, and I cherished every workshop, panel, and bar-side conversation. But I’m also thankful to have met so many other young writers and early-career scientists, both as a participant and as a mentor. These people have inspired me and pushed me to sharpen my own brand of science writing, and I’m filled with pride every time I see one of their names out in the world behind something cool.
Finally, I have to say I’m thankful for all the intangibles of a program like TWP. That includes the opportunity to network with people like Laura, obviously, but it also includes the many conversations I had with experts and amateurs alike, the exposure to new ideas, and the hunger that comes with seeing others pursuing their passions.
Had I said no five years ago, I might still be sitting in a fluorescent-lit office somewhere arguing about the perceived connotation of the word ‘revolutionary.’